In a recent OpEd, CDCR Secretary Beard, defends his agency's use of torture, and justifies it by vilifying and dehumanizing some of its victims. Conditions in CDCR’s SHUs meet international definitions of unlawful torture. Sensory deprivation is torture. Prolonged isolation is torture. California, unlike most states and nations, refuses to recognize that it is both unlawful and poor public policy to punish people with prolonged isolation. Though no other jurisdiction appears to deny that these practices constitute solitary confinement.
These conditions cause permanent physical and psychological effects. As an attorney and academic, I have conducted over 60 interviews with people sequestered in SHUs, and have witnessed the physical and psychological effects of isolation. Having recently visited strikers, I can attest that as a result of their non-violent demonstration, they are experiencing irreversible and life threatening effects that will only worsen if CDCR and Governor Brown do not take action immediately.
Hunger and work strikes by disfranchised people, who have little to leverage but their bodies, have earned a dignified and noble legacy in human and civil rights movements. The last three California prison strikes have succeeded in shining light on atrocious living conditions typically shielded from the public behind prison walls.
The OpEd misrepresents CDCR's de-jure policies, and avoids addressing its de-facto policies, which arise from prison staff’s vast discretion in policy interpretation and execution. The OpEd attempts to narrow the discussion to CDCR's treatment of the sub-group of people staff accuse of being affiliated with gangs and focus on the strike's second demand. However, the other four demands, concern issues affecting all prisoners in solitary, many of whom are never accused of gang activity.
CDCR continues to arbitrarily discipline and move people to solitary confinement without adequate due process, whether for a determinate term (though people are often held after the term's end) or indeterminate term. Currently, CDCR is issuing rules violations to hunger strikers simply for not eating, and charging participants and non-participants with “gang related activity” for showing support for the strike. These violations can be used to send people to the SHU, keep them there, or deny people post-conviction relief (parole, prop 36 re-sentencing, etc.). To issue so many on such specious grounds at a moment when CDCR is mandated to release 10,000 people is emblematic of the due process violations the strike seeks to address.
As CDCR moves people to or within the SHU, staff have denied people access to their property. This includes placing people in a cell with a mattress, but no sheets or blanket, for days on end. Pelican Bay SHU cells have no windows or skylights, and the murky slits in the concrete at Corcoran can hardly be called windows. Light comes from a fluorescent bulb that is never shut off.
Especially since the strike's announcement, CDCR has routinely denied people the ability to leave their cells for weeks on end, whether to shower, use the “yard” (either a metal cage or a small room with four concrete walls but no roof), or access the law library to meet court deadlines. With no access to the yard, some people exercise in their cells…but if they do so at the same time as others, the exercise is labeled as gang activity.
Access to other in-cell activities - like television, radio, books, or education - is contingent on having funds. Funds require either work (which many SHU inmates are prohibited from) or contacts on the outside. In the OpEd CDCR lauds how its “[r]estricting...communication...has saved lives both inside and outside prison walls” yet claims people can send and receive letters and visit every weekend. In reality, CDCR's extreme prohibitions and restrictions on phones, letters, and visits destroy lives by interfering with constructive family and attorney communications. This flies in the face of correctional best practices, which evidence that maintaining community ties decreases recidivism and supports reentry. As a rule, SHU inmates are also denied reentry-facilitating activities, such as interaction with other people in religious service, therapy, classes, or meals. Since the strike CDCR has even confiscated books, mail, TVs and radios.
Governor Brown and Secretary Beard must cease their deliberate indifference and end the standoff by meeting the five demands.
Caitlin Kelly Henry, Esq.
Attorney at Law, Adjunct Faculty, UC Hastings College of The Law
P.O. Box 641050, San Francisco, CA 94164